The Medieval Review 14.04.18


Aston, Mick and Chris Gerrard. Interpreting the English Village: Landscape and Community at Shapwick, Somerset . Oxford: Windgather Press, 2013. Pp. 456. 25.00 GBP. ISBN: 9781905119455.



Reviewed by:


Melanie C. Maddox
The Citadel
mmaddox@citadel.edu

In the book, Mick Aston and Chris Gerrard guide their readers through an epic ten years' worth of research to explore how landscape archaeology can combine with other disciplines to understand the people and land use of Shapwick village from the earliest evidence through to the present day. The book comes out of a plan to incorporate the study's findings into three separate publications. In 2007 the first publication was a detailed account of the archaeological evidence as a monograph for the Society of Medieval Archaeology. The planned third publication will be issued in pamphlet format, focusing on students and visitors to the area of Shapwick (xv).

In the book's preface the authors express the hope that the book "will be enjoyed by a broad readership with an interest in the history of the British landscape and that others will be tempted to make use of some of the technologies and ideas described" in the book in future projects (xv). What the book achieves in a very accessible fashion is to lay out a very detailed, rich history of a section of the British countryside and show what can be accomplished when academics are paired with local community groups not only to interpret the past, but also to generate enthusiasm and curiosity about it.

The book is divided into ten chapters. Chapter 1 opens by discussing the reason for choosing Shapwick as the location for their study, namely, that Shapwick allowed for the study to consider both its archaeology and its history to give an account of its "landscape from earliest prehistory to the present day" (1). The chapter also considers the beginning of the project, how the investigators approached the study and their chosen strategies for collecting their evidence. Chapter 2 discusses the historical documents available for the parish of Shapwick, as well as the makeup of the geology and soil, and archaeological techniques used to explore the landscape.

Chapter 3 begins the discussion of evidence that considers the earliest discernable inhabitants of the land from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. Chapter 4 takes a look at the archaeological records of the landscape during Roman times, AD 43-ca. AD 350. Chapter 5 considers the Shapwick landscape from the end of the Roman Empire into the early Middle Ages. Chapter 6 uses available information to detail the emergence of Shapwick village up to the Norman Conquest. Chapter 7 combines both archaeological and documentary evidence to develop an image of both the people and the land in the later medieval period.

Where chapter 7 focuses on a time when Shapwick was part of Glastonbury Abbey, chapter 8 covers post-medieval Shapwick after the dissolution of the Abbey. Chapter 9 rounds out the historical evidence for Shapwick to the present day and chapter 10 discusses both the change and continuity of the landscape of Shapwick throughout the time period covered in the book.

Keeping in mind that the book aspires to a broad readership, it is clear that the authors have had some true victories in their efforts. The wealth of images, illustrations, maps and diagrams found on practically every page of the book allow the reader truly to analyze and digest the information presented in each chapter. That, coupled with the fact that the book is reasonably priced at $40.81, encourages the reading of the book for a multitude of reasons, whether they be academic in nature or for the sheer love of the English countryside. Another advantage is the authors' use throughout the book of sectioned "boxes" providing the reader with complementary information for each chapter and giving the opportunity to discover more about topics like artifacts, historical figures and academic practices. This practice allows readers to read these boxes as they go or revisit them later for further expansion on a particular subject. Other important contributions to the book are the explanation of place-names and their roots as they occur throughout Shapwick's history.

Trying to connect to a group of people through their material culture and use of the landscape has been a point of contention within academic circles for some time. One possible drawback of the book is its use of "interpretive" narratives at the beginning of each chapter in an attempt to maintain a focus on the lives of the individuals who have left their imprint on the landscape. A dissatisfaction with this interpretive tool may not necessarily be the fault of the book, but instead this historian's preferences. Another challenge presented by the book is that the wealth of information being conveyed makes it somewhat dense by nature. This can lead to parts of the book being almost intimidatingly congested with the detailed discussion of archaeological features. This being said, the authors have generally managed to use their vast knowledge and experience working with both the public and students to create a dynamic interpretation of what the evidence from each time period means. Another strength of the book is its consistent comparison of evidence found at Shapwick with similar finds at other sites across England. This gives the reader the opportunity to explore similar types of evidence more thoroughly.

One of the book's challenges to the reader is the fact that it is jam- packed full of ten years of research. The authors have been able to put together an interpretation of Shapwick's landscape, and the people who shaped it, that can inspire new ways of academic research as well as new ways of incorporating a broader base of public interest into programs and research projects that show value to the people they affect. This of course was always a notable strength of Mick Aston, and one of the reasons he will be greatly missed.



Copyright (c) 2014 Melanie C. Maddox



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